The arctic ice melt: emerging resources, emerging issues.

AuthorAu, Thomas

Introduction & Abstract

The permanent melting of Arctic sea ice has created a unique application of a wide array of international statutes and regulations to a complex, global issue. As the Arctic sea ice melts, more resources are becoming available, and countries neighboring the Arctic--and some beyond the shadow of the Arctic--are competing for a multitude of formerly untapped resources. Canada has an especially critical role in the post-Arctic sea ice arena due to both its location and its highly-protective native rights. Although it is more frequently perceived through the lens of an environmental crisis, the permanent melting of Arctic sea ice and the race to control the Arctic's resources promises to be one of the key international law struggles of the twenty-first century.

Regular Arctic sea ice melt is not distinctive of the modern day. Indeed, it is a naturally occurring process that occurs cyclically throughout the seasons. However, Arctic sea ice melt has recently become accelerated due to the harmful effects of global industrialization and its externalities. A devastating cycle has been initiated in the Arctic that scientists predict will bring an end to Arctic sea ice as we know it. The opening of the Arctic is ushering in a potentially historic bounty of natural resources, and the amount of oil and natural gas that will become available is staggering. The Arctic sea ice melt will require international cooperation to prevent the outright usurpation of the Arctic's riches.

Offshore drilling in Canada and the United States is managed by their respective federal governments. However, Canada and the United States employ significantly different approaches towards the regulatory management of exploration, leasing, development, and production of offshore oil and gas. It is critical to understand the differences in these approaches in order to effectively manage the emerging natural resources and resolve impeding disputes.

As the ice melts and resources become readily accessible, states are looking to stake their claim and reap the financial benefits. While both Russia and China have made overt strides at claiming resources, Canada and the United States are following the appropriate dispute resolution mechanisms outlined in the United Nations Charter ("UN Charter") and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ("UNCLOS") to resolve contested disputes. The conflicting claims over resources in the Beaufort Sea offers a unique insight into the Canada-United States relationship and their multifaceted judicial and diplomatic approach to the dispute.

The recent creation of Nunavut and its grant of semi-autonomy as a distinct, aboriginally administered federal territory complicates the regulatory environment in the Canadian Arctic. Overlap and ambiguity in the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act create several emerging legal conflicts between the regulatory powers of Nunavut and the Canadian federal government. However, Canada has developed a workable solution based on historical initiatives with its eastern provinces regarding offshore resource management.

The permanent melting of Arctic sea ice is clear and present. With much of the Arctic's natural riches becoming increasingly exposed, it is imperative that the international community react responsibly to reach an equitable resolution between competing claims. Canada has an especially vital role in the entire process, and the manner in which international and native rights are balanced will have an indelible effect on the future of the Arctic.

  1. The Science Behind the Melt

    There is perhaps no environmental issue so immediate and omnipresent as the permanent melting of Arctic sea ice. Under normal global conditions, Arctic sea ice grows and shrinks seasonally from variations in temperature and sunlight. There are some natural phenomena, including polar amplification, that have hastened ice melt throughout Earth's history, but when observed and considered in the long ran, those processes have had a negligible effect when considering the current, dismal state of Arctic sea ice. Since the advent of human-initiated environmental degradation, Arctic sea ice has been depleted at an alarming rate. The twenty-first century has seen a stream of new record lows of sea ice extent. Pollution and other human activities have caused the unprecedented Arctic sea ice melt, and naturally occurring, scientific processes exhibiting positive feedback have exponentially accelerated the record melt. This section begins with a brief primer on the Arctic as a geographic region, and then describes the scientific processes involved in the Arctic sea ice melt, from those that occur naturally to those man-made. Finally, the significance of these processes is illustrated through a description of the positive feedback loop at work in the melt.

    1. Arctic Ice, Measurements, and Expected Melting

      The Arctic conjures up images of a barren, frigid scene, replete with ice and snow. Indeed, the Arctic is primarily comprised of an ocean bordered by a spattering of islands and larger masses, (1) and covers about six percent of Earth's surface. (2) In the most precise sense, the Arctic encompasses all of Earth north of 66 degrees, 32 minutes North Latitude (the Arctic Circle). (3) Other definitions used mainly by scientists include the area beyond the northernmost point at which upright trees can grow (the "tree line") and the northern latitude area where the average daily temperature fails to rise above ten degrees Celsius. (4) Regardless of the definition, the Arctic's most significant feature is Arctic sea ice: floating frozen seawater, much of which perennially covers the central Arctic Ocean. (5) Sea ice is unique in that it originates entirely in water, as opposed to glaciers, icebergs, ice sheets, and ice shelves, which are all initially formed on land. (6)

      Actually measuring sea ice can be complicated and, at times, problematic. The two methods for measuring sea ice are "extent" and "area." (7) When determining the volume of sea ice in the Arctic, the more simple method is measuring extent. (8) Measuring sea ice extent involves categorizing an area of the ocean as "covered" or "not covered." (9) Using satellite technology, scientists divide the Arctic and surrounding areas into individual pixels on a map, and if a certain pixel is at least fifteen percent covered in sea ice, then that cell's area is considered "covered" for purposes of the calculation. (10) This process can lead to overestimating the amount of actual sea ice in the Arctic. For example, a given area of ten pixels may have fifteen percent sea ice coverage on each individual cell, but that area will be defined as one hundred percent covered under the definition of extent. Conversely, measuring area consists of determining the precise amount of ocean covered by sea ice. (11) The same satellite data used for extent is evaluated, but only the percentages of the pixels covered by sea ice are considered. (12) A pixel with fifteen percent sea ice coverage will be counted simply as fifteen percent (more precisely, fifteen percent multiplied by the pixel's land area) for an area calculation. Thus, a measurement of the Arctic's sea ice extent will almost always be greater than a measurement of its sea ice area. (13) Generally, the scientific community relies on the extent method as more reliable than the area method because determining whether a pixel has greater than or less than fifteen percent coverage is much easier than determining a precise percentage of coverage. (14) Despite their differences, both measurements are essential. Both the concentration (area) and the scope (extent) of sea ice must be analyzed in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the state of Arctic sea ice. For most investigations into the changes occurring to Arctic sea ice, extent is used because it explains, in a more comprehensive sense, the overall scope of the Arctic affected.

      Though the most central area of Arctic sea ice (the "cap") remains frozen throughout the year, the volume of Arctic sea ice ebbs and flows with seasonal changes. Indeed, some degree of melt is a natural process, usually beginning in March and continuing through September. (15) In the first half of the twentieth century, this natural melt and freeze resulted in Arctic sea ice extent with an average maximum of about 14,000,000 [km.sup.2] and an average minimum of about 11,000,000 [km.sup.2]. (16) However, since the 1950s, there has been a sharp decline in the extent of Arctic sea ice year-round. (17) The maximum in 2005 was about 1,000,000 [km.sup.2] lower than the maximum in 1950, and the minimum was about 4,000,000 [km.sup.2] lower over that same time period. (18) In 2012, the Arctic sea ice extent minimum decreased to 3,410,000 [km.sup.2]--the lowest ever recorded in the history of satellite data usage. (19) Even though a natural sea ice melt-freeze process is expected in the Arctic, the rate at which the ice is melting and its ever-shrinking minimum and maximum extents has made it alarmingly clear to the scientific community that all is not well in the Arctic. (20)

    2. Processes at Work in the Melt

      A number of natural processes work in unison to cause the growth and reduction of Arctic sea ice. Before analyzing the sources of the major climatic changes that have led to an unprecedented decline in Arctic sea ice, it is important to understand the processes that underlie any and all changes in sea ice quantities.

      1. Thermodynamics

        Sea ice melts and grows as a result of processes known as thermodynamics. (21) Due to the fact that the Arctic Ocean's water is anywhere between thirty-two and thirty-seven practical salinity units (psu), (22) its water begins to freeze at -1.8 degrees Celsius. (23) In reality, however, the situation becomes more complicated when considering heat exchange and varying salinity. (24) As Arctic air chills sea water to its freezing...

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